Image by: Jan Canty
I’ve heard the early part of Acts chapter 2, in which Peter tells the people to repent and be baptized, read many times over the years. The latter part of that chapter, which I’ve heard read less often, tells of the daily lives of the Christians, their devotion and deep friendship, how they had all things in common and provided for each other according to their needs. I’ve never heard these two parts of the chapter read together as a whole. Our lectionary separates them by only one Sunday, but in our understanding they seem to be separated by miles.
What it meant to live in Christ and in Christ’s Communion, and what it still means, is plain in the passage: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That part is familiar enough: it’s part of our baptismal covenant, and it’s what many of us will think of when we think about living in Christ. But what it’s not separated from, what it flows from or flows into, and was a given for those early Christians, is this: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This understanding is somewhat reflected in our baptismal vows as well, but less baldly stated.
This passage is so radical, so like the Creator, and so like the living land. The spiritual fruit of the practices described in Acts 2 are the transformed habits of relationship and daily life. In my experience, these new ways of being have been considered weird and fringe by many Christians, or merely dismissed as not reasonable, or as politically loaded. Yet our scriptures in Acts declare them to be not only faithful, but the natural outcome of Christian practice.
This passage doesn’t even go into how these early Christians, in living out their faith, transgressed all kinds of societal boundaries between genders, classes, and races in ways perceived as shocking in their context. But there’s more: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” This is what it meant to follow in the way of Jesus, to live the values of the Divine: learning, building relationships, sacrament and prayer practice, being together as a unit whose good is common and shared. It meant being people who found meaning in being part of a whole rather than in having wealth and possessions, a people who took joy in distributing resources to keep everyone well and out of need.
Doesn’t that sound like an incredibly beautiful, holy, and satisfying way to live?
I don’t think we know how to do that, in a lot of ways. For a third- or fourth- generation settler, like me, whatever sharing and community life might have been part of life in the old country is a distant memory. Now we barely know how to share a large house with close family, share a bathroom or bedroom with siblings, or share a lawnmower with neighbours, never mind sharing knowledge and joys and sorrows, sharing responsibility for one another’s wellbeing, or, what is really taboo, in North America, sharing money (except through channels like charities, that give us a safe distance). This kind of sharing has been trained out of us. Rather than each generation and each family learning the skills to get along, we’ve had the luxury of avoiding and leaving each other, to our own misery, foolishness, and lack of spiritual and emotional growth.
There are those among us who’ve lived and grown up in ways that are more community-based. But for a society like ours in general, it would take a complete change of heart, a change of vision, to allow us to live in the way our faith calls us to. A repentance, we might call it; a conversion, certainly.
Some of our conversion involves seeking policy change, political change, and economic change to help “share things in common” on the scale on which our society operates.
But it can’t all be there, because the other part of it is vulnerability: vulnerability in finding that our stability is in knowing whose we are and where we belong in the family of creation, not in savings and investments, or the fortress of a home. In faith, we face the reality that we are all vulnerable, all fragile, and all one step away from suffering or death at any given time. But we also know that when we care for one another in Christ, the way Paul exhorts us to, the threat of suffering and death does not have so much power.
At its best, our faith does not seek the conversion of people away from who we are, from our unique identities. Instead, the conversion is toward ways that often run counter to societal norms, that seek abundant life for all, in oneness with each other and with our source. We are invited again, always, into such a conversion as the early church lived out, as the community of Jesus lived out before it in smaller ways. We are together in Christ, in the values of that radical conversion that is the faith of Christianity, given to us as a gift, for not just all time but for this time — this time in particular, whether you’re feeling lousy and unsettled, overworked or restless, worried and ungrounded, or in denial. Right where we’re at, this invitation is a gift from which to make something, a gift to unsettle us more and turn us in good directions, and we need it now.